Conflicts and In-School Suspensions Drop Sharply at Middle School During Second Year of "Restorative Discipline" Initiative

Truancy, bullying and other conflicts among students are down, and in-school suspensions have declined 75 percent at a San Antonio middle school two years after University of Texas at Austin researchers helped implement "restorative discipline" as an alternative to "zero tolerance" in dealing with these issues, according to second-year findings involving a three-year initiative.

The marked improvement at Ed White Middle School in San Antonio's North East Independent School District also was reflected by its being ranked in the top 25 percent statewide for improved progress this year, said Marilyn Armour, a professor at The University of Texas at Austin's School of Social Work and director of the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue. She said the middle school made substantial gains in student school performance as measured by the number of students who passed the state exam's math and reading components.

In 2012, Armour was invited by the school's principal, Philip Carney, to implement a school restorative discipline program at a time when the school had some of the highest disciplinary sanction rates in the district. After the first year, the program showed positive results in reducing student suspensions though some teachers remained resistant to the new way of dealing with student misconduct. Moreover, despite the advances in school discipline, the school still received an "improvement required" rating by the Texas Education Agency in 2012-2013.

"In addition to the marked improvement in student school performance, in this second year we are seeing more acceptance from teachers. They are less critical of restorative discipline, and instead they are requiring more intensive interventions. They also have moved from seeing restorative discipline as a magic bullet to using it as a method to teach students pro-social behaviors, and they have also recognized the need for perseverance," Armour said.

Restorative circles are one key method teachers are implementing at Ed White Middle School. Led by an adult facilitator, a restorative circle brings together the students in conflict in a setting that emphasizes mutual respect, deep listening and the search for a consensus-based solution. The solution agreed upon is then written in a binding document that all circle participants sign and promise to uphold.

"This second year of the restorative discipline program continued the trend of lowering student suspensions that we saw during the first year," Armour said.

The results are most dramatic in the sixth grade, which after two years of restorative discipline has experienced a 75 percent drop in in-school suspensions.

Seventh-grade in-school suspensions dropped 47 percent with one year of restorative discipline. In addition, tardiness is down 48 percent for the sixth grade and 39 percent for the whole school. Tardiness is considered an indicator of school engagement, and chronic tardiness in middle school has been shown to be associated with failure in high school.

Sixth-grade teachers were trained in restorative discipline in the summer of 2012, and seventh-grade teachers were added in 2013. Eighth-grade teachers are next in the training schedule, with the goal of having all teachers trained by 2014-2015, the final year of the project.

This year, the Texas Education Agency gave Ed White Middle School stars of distinction for student achievement in English, math, social studies, and for being in the top 25 percent in the state for student progress. The school also ranked No. 2 for improved student progress among middle schools with the same demographics. Most of Ed White Middle School's students are economically disadvantaged, and they have historically performed below the state average in passing the state exam.

Ed White Middle School improvements during 2013-2014 happened in the context of high mobility of the student body, when close to 70 percent of the students left, entered or re-entered the school. Compared with other schools in North East ISD, Ed White Middle School has the highest level of mobility in the district.

Armour said teachers commonly described differences in student behavior over time as "day and night." For instance, one student went from 54 referrals for offenses in year one to four referrals in year two.

"When I was in the middle of it, I couldn't really see that it was making a difference," one teacher said about the effect of restorative discipline methods on students.

"But looking back and seeing where they are versus where they were, it really has made a huge difference."